John Kelly is in his car, waiting patiently for his COVID-19 vaccine appointment. ‘I just got the notification this morning!’ he says, the faint sense of relief palpable in his voice: ‘I bet you’ve never interviewed anyone from their car before?’ He’s correct, this is a Tribe Sports first. Unusual locations aside and despite a couple of technical issues to contend with - ‘Who said Zoom makes things easier?!’ I exclaim - we soon settle into a relaxed, open discussion about John’s experiences at arguably one of the most notorious and gruelling ultra marathons ever created - the Barkley Marathons.
Created in 1986 by Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, the Barkley Marathons take place every year across the wild Cumberland Mountains in rural Tennessee. Shrouded in mystery, the race is designed to push anyone who takes part to their absolute limits - and often well beyond. In the race's 35 year history, only 15 individuals can count themselves as official Barkley Finishers. John is the most recent racer to join those formidable ranks, having finished the race on his third attempt in 2017.
Before the explosion of social media - and a widely popular Netflix documentary in 2014 - information about the race flew mainly under the radar, available only to those prepared to seek it. For John - whose family have lived on the land where the Barkley Marathons are held for the last 200 years - it was something he’d grown up with.
‘I grew up chasing my older brother and cousins around the hills where the Barkley Marathons take place,’ he says: ‘We knew there was this crazy event that people came and did once a year, but I didn’t really know anything much about it until after college. Once I knew what it was they were doing up on those hills, it immediately captured my attention.’
With a notoriously secretive application process - only around 40 athletes are selected to take part every year - getting a place was going to be easier said than done. From the information that already exists about the event (there is no official race website) a postal application and $1.60 non-refundable registration fee is all it takes to enter. The race typically takes place in the first weekend of April, although this changes without warning to throw off would-be spectators.
‘The information about how to get an application in is certainly out there, if people really want to find it,’ says John: ‘Part of the reason behind the secrecy is it serves as an initial filtering process, to ensure that the people who manage to get an application in are serious about it and have put in the work to find out. Having previous Barkley Marathons under my belt also helped!’ (John has competed in 4 Barkley Marathons so far - 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.)
If you manage to successfully navigate the application process, you’ll receive a letter of condolences from founder Gary Cantrell. Racers are then expected to pay another fee, which is usually a piece of clothing which must be brought along to the race. Anyone racing for the first time - known as ‘Barkley virgins’ - must also bring a licence plate from their home state or country.
The journey to earning the title of Barkley Finisher involves completing 5 loops of an unforgiving unmarked circuit, with each loop covering around 20 miles across rugged mountainous terrain. Racers have 60 hours to complete all 5 loops and cover around 60,000ft of elevation over the entire course. Each loop officially starts and finishes with the racer touching a yellow gate, which also serves as the race starting line. There’s no whistle or starting pistol, racers simply wait for Gary Cantrell to light a cigarette, signalling the start of the race.
Another unusual aspect of the Barkley Marathons is the race bibs, which carry a unique importance. Rather than having a marked course, each loop requires the runner to reach various checkpoints - racers have one opportunity to copy a map at the start of the race and have no access to GPS. At each of these checkpoints, there is a hidden book and each racer must rip out the page number corresponding to their bib to prove they have visited that location. After each loop, racers are given a new bib number. There's usually around 10 books to find, and coming back with missing pages means missing out on the official finisher title. ‘Tearing out the pages of the books can be challenging, especially when you’re trying to find the new locations on the first loop - eventually everything starts to look the same out there!’ says John.
‘The 2017 event was a culmination of many years of hard work. At that point, my previous Barkley results were basically the only thing I was really known for in the running community, so I was very much the underdog going into that event,’ says John, as he recalls how his race unfolded the year he became an official finisher.
Rather than having a specific start time, racers need to be ready for the race to start anytime between midnight and noon, with Cantrell blowing a conch shell to signal the race will begin in exactly an hour's time. ‘We had a very late start to the race - or early, depending on how you see it - at 1.42am,’ says John: ‘I didn’t get much sleep and conditions were really poor, with heavy fog and rain. Right from the outset our backs were up against the wall and we lost any time buffer we might have had very quickly.’
After a challenging start, John teamed up with fellow Barkley Marathons veteran Gary Robbins to ensure both racers stayed on track. ‘We helped prevent each other from making any further mistakes!’ he laughs: ‘For the next 3 loops we were able to move very well together and put ourselves in a position to both be able to finish the 5th loop.’
For the final loop, the athletes separated to complete the last loop alone, heading off in opposite directions. Incredibly, John made it to the finish with 30 minutes to spare - sporting an orange hat and plastic bag he’d found on the course to protect himself from an unexpected cold snap. ‘It may sound like a decent margin on paper, but over the course of 60 hours it’s really nothing,’ he says: ‘I would only have needed to be about 30 seconds slower each hour to have not finished in time.’
Although delighted to finally realise his dream of being an official Barkley Finisher, it wasn’t an achievement he was able to share with fellow competitor Gary Robbins that year. Due to a slight navigational error, Gary ended up missing a crucial section of the final lap and therefore could not qualify as an official finisher. John was the only racer to finish that year.
As expected with a race as intense as the Barkley Marathons, John recalls several challenging moments during the 2017 race. ‘The low points for me were mostly related to sleep deprivation. I just simply couldn’t keep my eyes open,’ he says: ‘One point that sticks out was when I was on that final loop. I was up on top of the very last mountain. It was cold with lots of fog and rain obscuring my vision. I looked down at my watch and realised I had an hour and 40 minutes left to complete the race. The next thing I knew, I looked down at my watch again and I had an hour and 20 minutes left and I’m still just standing in the same spot on top of this mountain. To this day I’m still not entirely sure what happened in those 20 minutes - maybe I fell asleep or wandered around aimlessly on the mountain for a while, but I have no memory of it at all. I really had to have a talk with myself on the way down to keep focus, to convince myself what was happening was real.’
Having run the race 4 times so far, John recalls very different experiences at each event. ‘In 2015 I managed the ‘fun run’ which is 3 loops, in 2016 I managed 4 loops and then 2017 was the year I finally managed 5,’ he says: ‘I then came back and ran it in 2019. I really wanted to see how the experience would change with the official finisher badge to my name. That experience really showed me how important having the right mindset is to be successful in these events - and I simply didn’t have it that year. I didn’t want it badly enough and I was cursed with the knowledge of what I would have to do in order to finish in time. After 2 loops I was in the lead, but I decided I’d had enough and so that was my race over.’
‘One of the difficulties of Barkley is the sheer number of things that can cause failure,’ he says: ‘If there’s a weakness in there of any kind, this race will find it and exploit it. The moment you start to think ‘Maybe I’ll just quit’ - then it’s game over. It’s going to snowball, the thought will progressively grow into your mind until eventually that’s what you end up doing. It doesn’t matter how physically capable you are, this race is going to put you at your limits and you’re going to have to have that steadfast resolve and zero doubts in order to continue to push and move forward.’
Over its 35 year history, the event has only been cancelled twice - most recently in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that was only just starting to rapidly spreading across the globe. ‘The plan is to go back, absolutely,’ says John: “I was due to go back last year, but it got cancelled. Then this year I wasn’t able to travel to the US. It’s in the plans, but the timings just need to be right. I’m looking forward to getting back out there.’
And some closing advice for people hoping to one day tackle the race for themselves? ‘Do things where you think failure is probable,’ he says: ‘Get used to that circumstance and get used to approaching a problem with that attitude. Learn how you respond to those situations. A big part of being successful at Barkley is being able to get past the fact that you’ll probably fail, but nonetheless continuing to move on toward the possibility that you won’t.’
Photo credit: John Sharp, Tyler Landrum and Steve Ashworth